Obama fails to lead on 'don't ask, don't tell'

It's not hard to understand why the Obama administration went to court Thursday seeking a stay of a federal injunction barring the military from enforcing "don't ask, don't tell."

It could have allowed the injunction to stand, effectively killing this misbegotten Clinton-era compromise with principle under which gay service personnel were required to hide their identities in order to serve. But a Justice Department is usually duty bound to defend laws duly enacted by Congress — even those with which the president disagrees.

Plus there is the question of how to manage such a profound change. Last week's injunction would have brought "don't ask" skidding to an abrupt and immediate halt, and the potential for confusion was immense. So again, even though the president has repeatedly declared his intention to end the law, even though his military chieftains — Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — also favor repealing it, they are right to be concerned about how this is achieved.

As Mr. Gates recently observed, allowing gays to serve openly "requires careful preparation and a lot of training. It has enormous consequences for our troops." It makes sense, then, that the White House and the military would prefer to wait for a Pentagon study — due in December — that will report on how to implement a new, non-discriminatory policy with a minimum of disruption.

It is possible to concede all of the above and still be disappointed in what the administration has done. You wonder if the president has given any thought to how frustrating it must be to watch others dither over, and establish a timetable for, your freedom — just as if they had a right to do so.

And while you can't blame Team Obama for wanting to find a sensible and orderly way of implementing change, it is important to acknowledge that change is disruptive by definition, and often about as sensible and orderly as a flash flood.

Especially profound change like this, the kind that builds incrementally for months or years or generations, gathering force until, out of nowhere, wham! The accumulated momentum of those months and years and generations abruptly slams into gear and change is suddenly coming on like a downhill truck with bad brakes, barreling through roadblocks of wait a minute and whoa and slow down, let's plan how to do this.

Change, like babies, has this way of coming, ready or not.

We seem to have reached such a moment with regard to gays in the military. It is worth noting that the 70 percent of American adults who support allowing gay service members to serve openly includes majorities among some rather unlikely demographic subsets: 53 percent of conservatives, 57 percent of regular churchgoers, 60 percent of Republicans.

Those numbers would have seemed farcically improbable 20 years ago, when conservative, churchgoing Republicans were still scared to death their sons and daughters might catch gay if forced to share a barracks with homosexuals. That the numbers are what they are now is telling.

They speak to that gathering force, that growing sense that "don't ask, don't tell" is doomed. The unthinkable feels like the inevitable.

And the White House had better recognize it. It would be both regrettable and bizarre if a president who came into office on a mandate and battle cry of change were to falter on the very threshold from a failure to comprehend the fundamental nature of the thing. See, there comes a point when change gets rolling, when it gathers momentum, when it cannot be stopped, cannot be managed, can only be ridden.

And you find yourself, like the White House, facing a simple choice: lead, follow or get out of the way.

Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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